Posts Tagged ‘sociology’


It should come as no surprise that, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education [paywall], students on college campuses are struggling over the issue of class.

The situation is particularly difficult for first-generation college students (as I was back in the day), who are cast as subjects of “socioeconomic diversity” within institutions of higher education that are increasingly targeting the sons and daughters of the wealthy in order to increase revenues and move up in the rankings.

The class problem in relation to higher education, of course, is an old one, as Thorstein Veblen discussed in the Theory of the Leisure Class:

Ritualistic survivals and reversions come out in fullest vigor and with the freest air of spontaneity among those seminaries of learning which have to do primarily with the education of the priestly and leisure classes. Accordingly it should appear, and it does pretty plainly appear, on a survey of recent developments in college and university life, that wherever schools founded for the instruction of the lower classes in the immediately useful branches of knowledge grow into institutions of the higher learning, the growth of ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic “functions” goes hand in hand with the transition of the schools in question from the field of homely practicality into the higher, classical sphere. The initial purpose of these schools, and the work with which they have chiefly had to do at the earlier of these two stages of their evolution, has been that of fitting the young of the industrious classes for work. On the higher, classical plane of learning to which they commonly tend, their dominant aim becomes the preparation of the youth of the priestly and the leisure classes—or of an incipient leisure class—for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial, according to a conventionally accepted, reputable scope and method. This happy issue has commonly been the fate of schools founded by “friends of the people” for the aid of struggling young men, and where this transition is made in good form there is commonly, if not invariably, a coincident change to a more ritualistic life in the schools.

And, of course, it’s become much sharper in recent years, with growing inequality in the wider society and soaring debt for those students who are trying to follow the American Dream.

While I’m certainly not against the “dialogues” featured in the Chronicle article, what students in fact need is a clear and rigorous discussion of how class works—in the economy and in the wider society. They need academic courses—in economics and sociology but also in literature and the sciences—that explicitly treat the issue of class, which given students the concepts and methods to understand how class works and how it shapes their lives, before, during, and after their studies.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is participating in the “growth of ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic ‘functions’” and watching students struggle, outside the classroom, with the issue of class.

What would happen if the concept of exploitation became the entry point into our analyses of poverty?

According to Thomas B. Edsall, Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, asked exactly that question at a recent symposium on inequality at Yale:

If exploitation long has helped to create the slum and its inhabitants, if it long has been a clear, direct, and systematic, cause of poverty and social suffering, why, then, has this ugly word — exploitation — been erased from current theories of urban poverty?

who could argue that the urban poor today are not just as exploited as they were in generations past, what with the acceleration of rents throughout the housing crisis; the proliferation of pawn shops, the number of which doubled in the 1990s; the emergence of the payday lending industry, boasting of more stores across the U.S. than McDonald’s restaurants and netting upwards of $7 billion annually in fees; and the colossal expansion of the subprime lending industry, which was generating upwards of $100 billion in annual revenues at the peak of the housing bubble? And yet conventional accounts of inequality, structural and cultural approaches alike, continue to view urban poverty strictly as the result of some inanity. How different our theories would be — and with them our policy prescriptions — if we began viewing poverty as the result of a kind of robbery.

And Edsall himself poses a related, and perhaps even more significant, question:

How different would the nation’s politics be if either party, or at least the Democrats, added the concept of economic exploitation to its repertoire?

How should we treat enduring legacies?

Some legacies, like the culture of poverty approach, notwithstanding Daniel Little’s defense of current sociological research, need to be undone. Stephen Steinberg, in my view, still gets it right:

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one?

Then, there’s the legacy of Appalachia—of mountains, communities, and workers’ battles against the mining companies—which is being undone by current mining operations and, now, a federal judge’s ruling on behalf of the Mingo Logan Coal Co. to continue to operate its Spruce No. 1 mine.

“This town was already pretty much destroyed [by mountaintop removal mining] in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Nida said in a telephone interview. “It went from about 700 people to 60 or 70 now. This will just finish it.”

Blair is of particular significance because of its proximity to Blair Mountain, where in 1921 some 15,000 striking coal miners fought a violent battle with police and coal company-backed strikebreakers. Dozens died, and federal troops had to be called in.

Finally, there’s the legacy bequeathed to us by the unemployment suffered by millions of workers.

People who lose jobs, even if they eventually find new ones, suffer lasting damage to their earnings potential, their health and the prospects of their children. And the longer it takes to find a new job, the deeper the damage appears to be.

Not since the Great Depression have so many Americans been unable to find work for so long. But researchers have turned to the next-worst period, the early 1980s, to seek a better understanding of the likely damage.

A 2009 study, to cite one recent example, found that workers who lost jobs during the recession of the early 1980s were making 20 percent less than their peers two decades later. The study focused on mass layoffs to limit the possibility that the results reflected the selective firings of inferior workers.

Losing a job also is literally bad for your health. A 2009 study found life expectancy was reduced for Pennsylvania workers who lost jobs during that same period. A worker laid off at age 40 could expect to die at least a year sooner than his peers.

And a particularly depressing paper, published in 2008, reported that children also suffer permanent damage when parents lose jobs. The study followed the earnings of 39,000 Canadian fathers and sons over 30 years beginning in the late 1970s. The study found the sons of men who lost their jobs eventually earned about 9 percent less than the sons of otherwise comparable workers.

In order to undo that legacy, we would need to move beyond the culture of poverty, and to have better decisions by federal judges, and to understand that a system that produces massive, long-term unemployment—as well as staggering racial disparities and the ongoing destruction of Appalachian mountains and communities—needs to be replaced.